Mother Knows Least

I was thrilled when my daughter began learning a second language at day care. But what was I supposed to do when my three-year-old started engaging in conversations I couldn’t understand?
<span>III. </span><strong>Mother </strong><strong>Knows Least</strong>
Photograph by Randal Ford

Five years ago, when I was searching for day care for my first child, it didn’t occur to me that she might start learning Spanish before she could crawl. I was just looking for a sweet, affordable oasis for Mia, preferably near my office, and Escuelita del Alma, located on Austin’s busy Congress Avenue, fit the bill. The fact that the school was committed to Spanish immersion struck me as a nifty bonus.

When I was a child, learning a second language wasn’t a priority. I grew up in Wisconsin, the great-great-granddaughter of Irish, Norwegian, Welsh, English, and Belgian immigrants, most of whom moved to the Midwest about 130 years ago. Geographically, there was no urgent incentive to master a foreign language, since our Canadian neighbors to the north spoke English too. And though I took Spanish in high school, years later I hadn’t retained enough to take a conversation beyond “¿Cómo estás?” (God forbid the responder elaborated on “ Bien.”) Maybe because of his childhood proximity to Mexico, my Texan husband speaks passable Spanish and learns languages easily; on vacations, he’s comfortable conversing in the native tongue in Germany, Brazil, France, and Argentina. Me? I tend to smile and nod a lot—hardly a useful habit to pass on to Mia, especially in a state where an increasing number of her peers will know two languages.

So for the next five years, my daughter heard Spanish roughly eight hours a day, five days a week. For Escuelita’s Hispanic parents, it was, no doubt, a joy to hear their children speak the language of their ancestors. My experience was quite different, though it too was rooted in history. I learned what so many immigrants before me have learned: how strange it is to hear your child speaking a language you don’t understand.

On Mia’s first day, Escuelita’s assistant director, Rosa Delgado, took us to meet the baby-room teacher, Basilia, or “Basi,” a serious, pretty woman in her late sixties. She greeted me with a brisk “ Hola, señora” and stood at the ready, wearing comfortable shoes and an ironed red apron, her dark gray hair in a bun. She asked Rosa a few questions, and I realized during the time it took for me to put away Mia’s bottles, milk, diapers, and blankets that Basi knew absolutely no English.

This was going to be tricky. Even if I had a better memory, nothing I learned in high school Spanish class would have helped me much. Spanish phrases for “Where is the telephone?” and “What time is it?” were useless to me. I needed translations for “Why does my baby hate to sleep?” and “Oops, she just threw up.”

So we mimed. I visited Mia at every lunch break, feeding her in a wooden rocking chair while Basi tended to the other children and tried to talk with me. Our conversations made us look like silent movie actors, exaggerating our movements to get a laugh. We misunderstood each other frequently during small talk too insignificant to warrant an interpreter. Once, she thought I’d said my husband lives in Mexico, which confused her since she saw him regularly. Still, I trusted her, and it occurs to me now that part of that faith stemmed from her habit of whistling with a wide vibrato, a sound that I’d heard only from my great-grandma. That trust was deepened the day I went to pick Mia up and spotted Basi walking her around the small courtyard, whispering in my baby’s ear as if confiding a secret.

Wanting to bridge the communication divide, I enlisted a bilingual co-worker to record phrases I needed to know to talk with Basi. I practiced in the car, while sitting in traffic: “¿Durmió mucho?” “¿Le gustaron las zanahorias?” I’m not sure how successful my efforts were. For all I know, my attempt at “¿Lloró mucho?” came out as “Flat land man?” Basi was probably grateful when Mia graduated to the next classroom.

Predictably, my anxiety didn’t disappear, even though I could converse easily with my daughter’s new teacher, who was fully bilingual. When Mia was almost two, she wasn’t forming any words I could recognize, while kids I knew who heard English all day were already chatterboxes, using advanced phrases like “more chicken” or “diaper poop.” One day I summoned up my courage and asked Escuelita’s owner, Dina Flores, “Is this normal?” She nodded. “Sometimes kids who are learning two languages are slower to talk,” she said. I probably lingered long enough to underline my concern. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You wait. She’ll talk.”

I trusted Dina instinctively, and her résumé supported my confidence in her. She had taught kindergarten, mostly bilingual, in public schools in Austin and San Antonio for fifteen years before taking a job as office manager in 1994 at Las Manitas, a legendary downtown Austin lunch spot. She soon noted her employees’ need for good day care and, after much effort, opened Escuelita del Alma next door in 2000. 

The Spanish immersion idea quickly followed. “It has always been distressing to me that we have children of Latino descent who do not know how to speak the language of their grandparents,” she told me recently. “That was a big motivator for me. Another motivator was ‘Oh my God, the wasted opportunities.’ We spend so much money having second languages taught in high school, and when the kids graduate, they can speak maybe a sentence in Spanish.”

Within a few years of Escuelita’s opening, it seemed all the parents I knew who worked downtown were enrolling their children in the school. (There was—and still is—a large contingent from this magazine.) When the building was set to be razed, in 2008, Dina moved Escuelita to a larger building next to I-35, bringing along more than 150 families and a three-year waiting list. 

By that time, Mia had started to talk. She said “duck.” If it wasn’t her first word, it was the first word I understood.

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